A woman who lost tens of thousands of dollars in an apparent online romance scam began to be harassed by scammers posing as federal law enforcement after NBC10 Boston began looking into her case — and she says there is still no sign of her lost life savings.
The woman, a Massachusetts native who we’re calling Alice because she asked to remain anonymous, says that after losing over $150,000 in the online scam, she was contacted by cyber criminals posing as CIA agents threatening her with criminal charges if she did not cooperate with their orders — namely, not to discuss the situation with anyone, including her lawyer.
“The way that people who do the frauds and the scams seem to get away with things” has left Alice discouraged, she says.
In our September story about Alice’s situation, she described the monthslong online correspondence she had with a man who she met on a dating site. He seemed like a hardworking family man but told her he ran into trouble while on an overseas oil pipeline project. She wire transferred him money to help him out of the seemingly endless problems he told her he was having.
Then, she realized she was being duped.
A local woman lost her life savings in an apparent online dating scam.
Months after the loss, and about a month after NBC10 Boston reached out to the person Alice was communicating with, she received an email with a subject line reading, “THE CIA IN COLLABORATION WITH THE FBI.”
The email message purportedly from the CIA described the person she had been dating online and was scammed by, saying that he was actually a terrorist impersonating people on social media. The email threatened her with criminal charges for financing terrorism and said Alice was now under CIA watch. It warned her not to discuss the situation with anyone — not a “family member, friend or loved one” — or else she could be charged with “negligent spillage.”
The email’s domain was from outlook.com — not the .gov domain the federal agency told NBC10 Boston its communications would come from.
Things escalated further for Alice. She was texted by a purported CIA agent named Michael Donovan, who claimed to be working on the case. She even spoke to him multiple times on the phone. He provided a photo of a CIA ID badge, one that’s available is on eBay — down to the employee ID number.
A screenshot of a fake CIA badge available for sale on eBay.
An image of a purported CIA badge that was sent to Alice in a text from an apparent scammer.
“It also mentioned in there that if I needed to contact a lawyer or anything, then possibly I wouldn’t be able to get my money back,” Alice says about the communications she received. “Saying that I could be involved in this, where I was the one giving them money for illegal guns and stuff, so that I would have to answer some questions.”
She says she didn’t hear from “Agent Donovan” after telling him she would only want to meet at a local police station.
A series of text messages by a supposed CIA agent to Alice.
We reached out to the email address that contacted Alice, and have not received a response.
Understanding romance scams and scammers
Alice is not alone in being scammed while looking for love.
In 2022, nearly 70,000 people reported a romance scam, with losses hitting $1.3 billion, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
The agency has shared romance scammers’ favorite lies to tell their victims:
- “I or someone close to me is sick, hurt, or in jail.”
- “I can teach you how to invest.”
- “I’m in the military far away.”
- “I need help with an important delivery.”
- “We’ve never met, but let’s talk about marriage.”
- “I’ve come into some money or gold.”
- “I’m on an oil rig or ship.”
- “You can trust me with your private pictures.”
“Romance scams are one of the most brutal forms of scams that I’ve ever seen,” said Doug Fodeman, the executive director of online scam-awareness publication The Daily Scam.
Fodeman, of Marblehead, is a retired computer teacher who now focuses much of his time on educating the general public about online scams. He documents all types of scams by speaking directly to victims, and even tracks cyber criminals overseas himself.
“The most successful romance scammers, who literally make this their profession, they’re exceptionally good at winning over a person’s trust,” Fodeman said. “They come off as unbelievably, kind, empathetic and compassionate.”
“And especially if you combine that with their ideal victim, is someone who has been hurting, someone who’s in emotional pain because of loss or because of a relationship that’s fallen out or loneliness.”
Fodeman said there needs to be more resources available to help scam victims, and believes banks and tech companies need to do more to protect consumers.
“Our government has to do more to put up guardrails to safeguard its citizens against internet fraud,” Fodeman said. “In today’s day and age, our lives are lived on the internet.”
It’s not just The Tinder Swindler. $547 million was lost to romance scams in 2021, up 80% from the prior year. Unfortunately, dating apps can’t guarantee that the person you’re messaging has your best interests in mind. So we talked to sex and relationships researcher Justin Lehmiller for tips on protecting yourself from scams when you’re looking for love.
Boston University professor Kyung-Shick Choi, a cybercrime and cybersecurity expert, designs training programs for law enforcement.
“We don’t have [enough] human resources in cyber investigation,” he said. “So we’re trying to kind of build our capacity, but we are not there yet.”
Meanwhile, Alice has been working with an attorney and has claimed that Chase Bank was negligent in allowing her to send so much money with what she said were too few limits on what she could spend.
“Even though they say, ‘You sent the wire transfers,’ it at least should have been questioned about why so much,” Alice says. “And also, looking at the amount in the account, knowing that at the end of it, there was nothing.”
“Nobody wants to take control and to say, ‘Well, maybe we need to change the system,'” she adds.
A Chase Bank spokesperson referred us to a statement they gave for the earlier story about Alice’s situation: “We are sorry that [Alice] was a victim of this scam and we know these situations are heartbreaking. We urge all consumers to ignore phone, text or internet requests for money or access to their computer or bank accounts.